As a fan of classic Hollywood, it’s easy to find oneself mired in the untold number of studio classics which once filled marquees and to this day still dominate the airtime on networks like TCM. However, there are just as many movies from studios outside “The Big 5” aching for some love. So, for this Noirvember, I wanted to dive into some first-time-watches, and hopefully spotlight some features we’ve all missed. So, without much ado, here’s everything you need to know about Fear in the Night (1947).
Fear in the Night follows Vince (DeForest Kelley) a young bank teller in post-war Los Angeles. One night, the young man dreams he committed a grisly murder. However, as he wakes up, there’s more than a strong hint that it wasn’t a dream after all. Paul Kelly, Ann Doran and Kay Scott co-star, while Maxwell Shane directs the movie from his own script.
Interestingly, Fear in the Night holds a different importance to film history now than the noir that hit theaters in 1947. At the time of its release, newspapers marketed the movie as a vehicle for journeyman Paul Kelly, who primarily gets top billing over DeForest Kelley. Two decades later, Kelley would join the cast of the original series of Star Trek as Dr. McCoy, not only endearing himself to a whole new generation of fans, but also making himself a household name and a pop-culture legend. However, at this point, Kelley was a twenty-seven year old actor fresh off the stage.
That being said, it is this cast which truly sells this poverty row noir (though, Paramount reportedly distributed the film). Kelley, in particular, absolutely shines in his portrayal of Vince Grayson. In his performance, Kelley easily juggles the complexity in this young man, from his confusion, to his fear and his anger. A great deal of the narrative weight rests on Vince’s shoulders. As a result, it is imperative that audiences like him and feel for him, despite the fact he may have committed a heinous murder. Luckily, Kelley successfully makes this boy, who may have done something unforgivable, completely sympathetic and it’s easy to hope he finds a way out of all of this.
At the same time, Kelley’s take on Vince very much personifies the wounded masculinity of the post World War II era. It is this uncertainty, the fragility, and the struggle in the face of the many post war societal changes which is so visible in many of the leading men of this movement. As Fear in the Night opens, Vince is obviously listless. He lives in a rundown hotel. He’s working a job that doesn’t fit him. It isn’t a stretch to assume that he– like scores of the men around him– has recently returned from combat overseas.
Meanwhile, the movie falls into a common trap as it relates to the women in the narrative. As mentioned, there is some real talent in this cast, particularly Ann Doran (best known to audiences as Jim Stark’s mother in Rebel Without a Cause). Actress Kay Scott, like Kelley, also makes her screen debut in Fear in the Night. Both women receive a fair amount of screen time; however, each character fits solidly into a generic “good girl” caricature. Betty’s (Scott) goal in all of this is to marry Vince. Her main purpose in the narrative is actually to serve as a symbol. She represents the yearning for home, hearth and the desire return to normalcy in the years following World War II. Fear in the Night does present the potential for a fascinating femme fatale in Mrs. Belknap, but unfortunately her story (with the murder plot) remains off-camera and in Vince’s subconscious.
Meanwhile, Shane’s script does definite somersaults– but sticks the landing– in building a creepy escalation of tension, despite a relatively abstract plot. Viewers don’t truly see the murder at the center of the story. Everything is trapped inside Vince’s head. With a construction like this, there is an inherent doubt. Vince seems trustworthy, but is he really? With questions of shell-shock and post traumatic stress disorder, how much can anyone really trust the dark recesses of their own mind? For this to work, viewers must care about Vince and worry about what happens to him. As mentioned above, this is a testament to DeForest Kelley’s performance. The tension escalates evenly and effectively, fueled by Vince’s helplessness in the face of these events. The audience rides alongside him throughout, and the storytelling device works surprisingly well.
Ultimately, Fear in the Night‘s biggest struggle comes in the face of something the filmmakers can’t control. Fear in the Night is one of a long list of public domain features which multiply like rabbits into cheap, hastily made reproductions. The particular print I found on YouTube is very fuzzy and grainy into the third act. It didn’t play well and at times it’s hard to tell what is happening on screen This is the tragedy of the public domain. So many of these films have long been ignored and forgotten by the industry, and are fading into a dark and decidedly fuzzy haze. How many other movies are going to have to suffer this same fate while film preservation efforts struggle to catch up?
On the surface, Fear in the Night is a poverty row noir, trapped in the endless pages of the often poorly rendered, public domain movies filling YouTube. However, watching Fear in the Night shows it to be quite the interesting relic of a bygone era of cinema. This Noirvember, why not take some time to do some digging outside of the usual sources to find a truly interesting first-time-watch. I’ve long been a fan of the original Star Trek, but this opened my eyes to DeForest Kelley in a way I’ve never seen him before. Fans of film noir, classic Hollywood, and Trekies alike should add this one to their lists!
Fear in the Night is available to stream on YouTube.